Jagmeet Singh is performing poorly. The caucus is restive, fundraising is dismal and the national media are seriously unimpressed with his first six months as NDP leader.
Which is exactly what you would expect given Mr. Singh’s political experience, or lack of it. People within the NDP who exchanged candour for anonymity acknowledge that the new leader has had a rocky start.
But the qualities that propelled Mr. Singh from the opposition benches of the Ontario Legislature to the leadership of a national party remain. There are tentative signs that Mr. Singh is learning from his mistakes.
Though the odds do not favour Mr. Singh becoming Canada’s first visible-minority prime minister, those odds are not impossibly long. Much depends on how he handles three big challenges. Let’s look at them in turn.
The first challenge is earning the respect of caucus. Punishing Hamilton MP David Christopherson for breaking ranks with the party in a vote over a question of conscience was foolish, if only because Mr. Christopherson has friends in caucus who took his punishment badly.
But it’s not the Ontario caucus Mr. Singh has to worry about most. Conventional wisdom holds that political leaders wearing conspicuous religious garb, such as a turban, are a hard sell with Quebec voters. Some observers are bracing for an NDP wipeout in Quebec. NDP MPs in that province are nervous.
The second problem involves fundraising. Mr. Singh heavily out-fundraised his opponents during the leadership campaign, but that hasn’t translated into improved revenue for the party, which is in debt and far behind where it needs to be to launch a credible general election campaign.
Third, Mr. Singh has to show that he can make the NDP a political force in Greater Toronto. That means regaining the seats in Toronto itself that were lost to the Liberals in the last election and making inroads in the surrounding 905, with its heavily immigrant population. Thus far, there is scant evidence Mr. Singh is succeeding.
Add to that a young and inexperienced leader who has surrounded himself with a young and inexperienced staff, and it is reasonable to doubt whether Mr. Singh has the time and talent needed to make the New Democrats competitive in the next election.
Those are the challenges. But Mr. Singh may, in fact, be up to them.
On the Christopherson affair, Mr. Singh got out of the hole he’d dug himself by reinstating the MP to the committee position that had been taken from him as punishment. The whole affair lasted only a couple of days, unlike Mr. Singh’s protracted and indecisive response to allegations that he sympathized with Sikh separatists. Perhaps he and his people are starting to learn issues management.
The fundraising machine is practically moribund after two years of neglect following defeat in the 2015 election, but Mr. Singh has time to get the rolls updated. If he performs well going forward, the donations will come in.
As for Toronto, Mr. Singh’s fortunes in that region depend heavily on how Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath performs in the upcoming provincial election. The provincial and federal NDP machines are closely linked in Ontario. If Ms. Horwath does well, especially around Toronto, Mr. Singh will be in good shape to deliver on his promise of electoral gains.
The polls continue to show the NDP enjoying the support of one voter in five or better. That puts the party within striking range. Support for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals appears to be weakening. If there is a minority government after the next election, Mr. Singh should be well-positioned to further grow his own reputation and his party’s. And in the election after that, who knows?
The single most important quality in a politician lacking experience is the ability to learn from mistakes and not to repeat them. Is Mr. Singh learning? Will he continue to learn? That’s what really matters.
What made Jagmeet Singh attractive to the party in the first place − his youth, intelligence, energy, compassion and, yes, vaulting ambition − are still there. Let’s not write him off too soon.